A Minute With: Filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas on being 'undocumented'

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In 1993 at the age of 12, Jose Antonio Vargas said goodbye to his mother and boarded a plane in the Philippines to join his grandparents in California. It would be four more years before he would learn that he was in the United States illegally.

“Documented,” the debut film of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is still without the necessary papers, premieres on U.S. cable network CNN on Sunday. It tells his story growing up and working as a newspaper reporter without legal status and without a path to reverse it.

The documentary aims to put a human face on the 11 million undocumented people in the country. Vargas said it is not “an immigration film,” but a “love story between a mother and a son.”

Vargas, 33, spoke with Reuters about the emotional stress of feeling “illegal,” why language matters in the U.S. immigration debate and how talk show host Charlie Rose helped him act “legal.”

Q: You “came out” as an undocumented person in a 2011 magazine feature. What compelled you to share your story?

A: It actually started when I was assigned to cover the presidential campaign in 2007. I spent two years and two months on that campaign trail following Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John Edwards and Sarah Palin. I didn’t have the right papers and I’m on a campaign plane in Ohio.

I think that’s when my madness started ... It was either someone was going to find out or I just out myself. And really for me the hardest decision to make was deciding whether I was willing to be my own story.

Q: Why make a film and not write your story?

A: The only reason I became a writer was so I could exist on a piece of paper. That was really my own reason. To this day writing is the most painful thing to do ... Film, as any immigrant will tell you, television and movies is the way we make sense of this country when we first got here. Before I knew what a Republican or a Democrat was, I think I’ve seen every Mike Nichols film (“The Graduate,” “Working Girl”) you could see at the library.

Q: What sort of psychological pressure did you feel knowing that you could be deported?

A: I think I’ve always been paranoid. I always felt like I had the word “illegal” tattooed on my forehead. All of that is internal and the guilt of knowing that I am, and people not thinking that I am (illegal) because I look like this. People think this is a brown, Latino issue.

I remember the first thing I did when I found out I was illegal was to get rid of my thick Filipino accent. I figured that I had to talk white and talk black at the same time, like Charlie Rose and Dr. Dre. If I can talk white and black then no one is ever going to think that I’m “illegal.”

Q: Through your group Define American you have campaigned for the media to change the terms in which it talks about undocumented immigrants. Why does language matter?

A: A lot of the reason I outed myself was to politely and aggressively ask my fellow journalists to think about language and the consequences of language ... To be here illegally is actually a civil offense and not a criminal one.

Q: Did you find any catharsis making this film and reviving contact with your mother after several years of silence?

A: Let’s put it this way: I got a therapist after we edited the film ... It became very apparent that my story doesn’t make sense without her. She’s the one who put me on the plane. She’s the one who made the sacrifice. My story is her story. That’s when it became intensely personal. And then to face myself, I had to face her.

Q: Do you daydream about what you would do with a passport?

A: The daydream would be to be free, to go wherever I want to go. I’ve done everything I’ve done in this country with the limitations I have.

Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Mohammad Zargham